I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not a big fan of love stories. This is because I find most romances to be inauthentic and artificial. That said, there are some romantic novels that make for great stories and don’t drip with sappiness. Gone With the Wind is one such novel. And now I’m adding Jan-Phillipp Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats to my list of great love stories.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, set in Burma, centers on the relationship between a Burmese man and woman in the 1950s, when both are in their late teens. The novel begins in present day New York, when the man — who has become a prominent lawyer married to an American woman — disappears mysteriously. When the man’s adult daughter, Julia, discovers a love letter from her father to an unknown Burmese woman, she decides to travel to Burma to investigate in the hopes of locating her father.
In Burma, Julia meets a poor but content old man who claims to know her father, Tin Win, and his long-lost love, Mi Mi. Julia is at first skeptical but soon enough, she becomes engrossed in the stranger’s tale. In the process, she learns about a side of her father that he never revealed to her or anyone in the family.
Through the old Burmese man, we learn of the pure and unflagging love between Tin Win and Mi Mi and how they come to be separated physically but never spiritually.
Author Sendker’s prose is lovely and his story about true love doesn’t ring false at all. It does read a bit like a fairy tale rather than a “realistic” romance.
Here are a couple of passages in the novel that I found particularly lovely:
…I am not referring to those outbursts of passion that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot live without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person — a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on to what we cannot…I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.
My father…seemed to think anyone was capable of anything, or at least he wouldn’t exclude the possibility just because he thought he knew the person. And he insisted that this did not represent the worldview of an embittered pessimist. On the contrary, he had said. It would be much worse to expect good from other people, only to be disappointed when they didn’t measure up to our high expectations. That would lead to resentment and contempt for humanity.